Will streaming kill physical media?
Chris Gould takes a look at the current state of streaming vs physical media...
Firstly it's fair to say that I'm not completely without bias in this argument. I've written for DVDActive for over ten years and I've seen DVD grow from its relative infancy to evolve into the dominant home entertainment format. I've also witnessed the emergence of Blu-ray, which has since gone on to become the format of choice for hardcore film enthusiasts and technical geeks. Both of these are physical formats and I love them. However, I also use a streaming service (Netflix) for the convenience of a quick fix, so I'm not some dinosaur completely opposed to on-demand services.
The convenience angle seems to be one of the biggest arguments made in favour of streaming services, so let's begin there. While my exposure to streaming is limited to the aforementioned Netflix I must agree that it's nice to be able to turn on the PC, PS3, BD player or tablet and browse a selection of movies and TV shows. There's no waiting around for the postman, nor any trips to the rental store to contend with. If I decide I want to watch something at two o'clock in the morning I simply fire up one of my devices and away I go. By comparison physical media is a positive chore. If I want to watch something new I have to plan ahead and pray that the postal system has its act together this week. If I want to watch something new in the early hours of the morning it means getting of off my lazy behind and driving miles to the nearest twenty-four hour supermarket and hoping they have something suitable in store, which obviously isn't an ideal situation. Another convenient feature of streaming is that it doesn't require any form of storage at the end-user's home. You can simply select your film, watch it, and then move on to the next one without the need to convert the spare bedroom into a display area for your collection of optical media. As someone whose house is stuffed to the gills with DVDs, Blu-rays and games, I can see why this is an attractive option for many. No, I don't think anyone can seriously make a convincing argument for physical media's convenience over streaming services, but what about selection?
Streaming services are great for a quick fix when you don't particularly mind what you watch, but what if you have a strong desire to see the latest movies or some obscure foreign film? While Netflix actually has a surprisingly good selection of foreign and obscure films they don't rotate all that often and are of course just a tiny sample of what is available. Recently I was astounded to find Galaxy of Terror in HD on Netflix, and in the past I've even watched the 'classics' Robot Jox and Buckaroo Banzai, along with some fairly recent Japanese and Korean features. However, if I wanted to watch something like Mr. Vampire or The Beastmaster I'd be out of luck. Even big name titles such as the Star Wars and Harry Potter sagas, and classics such as The Godfather and Jaws are conspicuous by their absence from the streaming services. From looking at the Lovefilm catalogue it appears as if they might offer some films that Netflix do not (and vice versa), but even if you were to sign up to multiple streaming services you still wouldn't have access to everything that physical media offers. Of course this could change in the future if the market shifts firmly towards the digital distribution model, but at the moment disc-based distribution has the edge in this area.
So you have your content, but what about the quality of said content? As things stand physical media is, for my money, head and shoulders above of streaming. From what I've been able to learn, Netflix still has the edge in the quality stakes over its main rival (Lovefilm) when it comes to streaming. Lovefilm's site claims that 1080p streams are currently only available on PCs, with other devices only supporting 720p. The bandwidth required for these streams is also higher than Netflix (but more on this point later). Netflix has recently overhauled its service to offer Super HD versions of some titles, but this is ISP dependant and many people are still left with the regular 1080p streams or below (although it seems frivolous to complain about such things). Although the quality of these streams is impressive compared to standard definition and even broadcast HD, it's simply not up to the standard of the average Blu-ray equivalent.
On this page I've included a number of comparisons between Netflix HD streams and the Blu-ray equivalents. Now I'll admit that the Netflix streams are actually quite impressive, especially if you're a casual viewer who views entertainment as a disposable commodity. As a film and home-theatre enthusiast I sometimes forget that not everyone shares my obsession and as such aren't really concerned with things like grain, colour reproduction, or artefacts. However, for people like me the advantages of physical media are obvious. In each of the comparisons on the page the Blu-ray version of the film is sharper and more detailed, with superior colour and contrast for a 'film-like' appearance. Then of course there's the audio. Some of Netflix's streams offer Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio, which is good, but still not as good as the higher-fidelity lossless audio found on Blu-ray. Additionally, a large number of Blu-ray discs are now releasing with 7.1 audio, something that streaming services do not yet offer. Extras are another plus for physical media, especially those that offer genuine insight into the filmmaking process. It seems to me that, while streaming isn't a million miles behind, if you want the very best quality you'll have to stick with those shiny Blu-ray discs until such time as the on-demand services catch up. Of course as the popularity of MP3 has shown sometimes quality just isn't the overriding factor in people's purchasing decisions.
This leads me neatly on to my next point, that of on-demand content delivery. For me this is the single biggest obstacle facing the mass-adoption of streaming services. I'm lucky enough to live in an area that offers cable broadband at speeds of up to 100Mbps (soon to be 120Mbps), but even I suffer from the dreaded buffering and drop-outs during periods of high network utilisation. It's all well and good advertising these high speed services, but bandwidth is finite and at peak times even the fastest networks can buckle under the strain. Of course this high speed doesn't come cheap either, with my service weighing in at £35 per month. Sure you can opt for a lower tier service, but these usually come with more restrictive bandwidth caps and when you consider that streaming an HD film can consume 2-3GB of data every hour it's not hard to see how you could go over your allowance. In some cases this only leads to a temporary reduction in speed - a minor annoyance to be sure - but in others it could lead to additional charges or the loss of Internet entirely. As more and more people sign up to streaming services the strain on the infrastructure is only going to get worse, so some serious investment is needed before everyone will be able to watch on-demand content at anything approaching Blu-ray quality. In many areas (particularly rural) people's only option is still ADSL down old copper phone lines, which simply doesn't offer anything like the bandwidth for current services let alone future developments. 4K is apparently the next 'big thing' and that will require even more bandwidth than today's HD content. No, the UK is still a long way from having the sort of broadband infrastructure that can support streaming as the number one delivery method, and I suspect this is true of many countries.
As an adjunct of the above point, I work in IT and in my experience the majority of people are scared to death of technology. Granted younger people are more conversant in such things, but I'm frequently amazed by how many twenty-somethings exhibit almost no aptitude for even the most basic of technical tasks (and don't even get me started on the 'we should go back to pen and pencil' brigade). When such individuals are ill at ease with concepts like inserting a disc into a drive - something that confuses people more often than you'd think - it's hard to imagine them coping when faced with the prospect of navigating an intangible library of movies on an 'alien' device. Of course these people were probably just as scared of VHS and DVD and will eventually learn the necessary skills, but I find suggestions that we are currently living in an age when everyone is comfortable streaming or downloading their entertainment highly dubious.
Another factor that is often overlooked is people's innate desire to hold something tangible in their hands; to build a library of films. Even as someone who owns what others might call an excessive number of DVDs and Blu-rays the current Steelbook craze bemuses me, but there are obviously people out there who are keen collectors and as such are creating the demand for that particular market. There's definitely a psychological component to the accumulation of material goods, and I always get more of a rush from receiving a Blu-ray in the post than I do from streaming or downloading a film. To me there's more inherent worth in the physical object than there is in the digital equivalent, which feels largely disposable by comparison. Of course I'm the sort of person who used to buy vinyl instead of CDs...
There are no doubt other arguments to consider on both sides, but if I went into that much depth this article would never end. So, to avoid droning on incessantly, here's a brief summary of the pros and cons of both delivery systems:
- Relatively low cost
- Acceptable quality (not the best, but 'good is good enough' for some)
- Quality inferior to physical media
- Heavily reliant on broadband availability and performance
- Use requires 'retraining'
- Limited selection
Physical media pros:
- Offers the best quality
- People like to own something tangible (collectors)
- Not reliant on broadband speed, bandwidth or continuity
Physical media cons:
- Require physical storage space
- Can break/otherwise corrupt
- Higher costs
- Some hardware compatibility issues
Again I'd like to emphasis that this is how I see the current state of streaming vs physical media. Your views and opinions could differ wildly from mine depending on your usage habits and preferences and ultimately this is what will drive the market. If enough people chose the convenience of streaming over the technical superiority of physical media that is where the industry will go. Of course the upshot could well be that such a move will force content makers to provide better quality streaming services that match, or even exceed the quality currently afforded by Blu-ray. So to answer the question posed by the title of this article, yes, streaming may eventually 'kill' mass-market physical media. However, I believe we're a long way off from that yet and even if it does come to pass there will still be a market for physical media of some sort, even if it is relatively small. Perhaps we'll end up with something akin to the vinyl market today. What do you think?
* Note: The images on this page were captured from Netflix HD streams and the equivalent Blu-rays for comparison purposes. Each of the films currently feature in the UK Netflix site's 'popular' section and represent a cross-section of films old and new.
Editorial by Chris Gould
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